Gypsy’ at Latte Da has charm to spare

October 8, 2006.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

“Gypsy” is one of those old-school musicals that, in the wrong hands, can feel as hidebound and dusty as a long-ignored library book. But, in a lean, crisp production, Theater Latte Da turns a new page on an old familiar title.

Exploring the grittier edges of the 1959 musical suggested by the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Latte Da still hews to the musical tale of the ultimate stage mother and her single-minded efforts to connive, cajole and control daughters June and Louise into stardom.

Old-style footlights and racks of ticky-tacky costumes nicely augment the faded-glory atmosphere of the Loring Playhouse. The denizens of old vaudeville – plate-spinners, ventriloquists and palsied accordion players overseen by leering stage managers – haunt the space like ghosts.

Artistic director Peter Rothstein borrows from British director John Doyle, who has pared down and re-imagined such musicals as “Sweeny Todd” and “Company” for Broadway with spare stagings in which actors double as musicians.

In similar vein, music director Denise Prosek is the backbone of the instrumental ensemble for the Latte Da production. But just about everyone in the 14-member cast eventually picks up an instrument. Young Jake Ingbar accompanies on the cello while Louise sings “Little Lamb.” June and Louise sing and play a four-handed version of “If Mama Was Married” on the piano. Even Mama Rose gets in on the act, tooting out a few bars of “Let Me Entertain You” on the trumpet.

Gimmicky? Maybe. But Rothstein makes sure it has purpose. Near the end of the show, the characters from her life march past Mama Rose in a dream-like parade. They take their positions in a makeshift orchestra that accompanies the matriarch in “Rose’s Turn,” the nervous-breakdown-on-stage that puts an exclamation point on the show’s capstone moment.

The cast fits neatly into this yellowed and hazy vision of the show. Jody Briskey is a titanic Mama Rose – tiptoeing right up to being terrifying before flashing just enough humanity to show why her children and lovers must remain in her orbit. Briskey casts herself headlong into the role and delivers a mesmerizing performance. Her version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” offers a tone-perfect balance of what the number should be but seldom is – an ebullient tune juxtaposed against a dark turn in the play’s narrative.

Simone Perrin is a more-than-worthy foil playing Louise, the less-beautiful, less-talented daughter who would become Gypsy Rose Lee. Her pouty lips, slight frame and page-boy haircut give her a sense of vulnerability, but you can almost see her Louise accumulating the layers of toughness necessary to eventually confront her mother. And though she might look wispy, there’s nothing meek about her voice.

Tod Petersen demurs nicely as Rose’s would-be husband Herbie, and Katie Allen belts and dances her way admirably through the unenviable role of stage brat June. Erik Pearson, Randy Schmeling and Reid Harmsen contribute solid performances as June’s backup hoofers.

Double-casting this trio as burlesque dancers in the second act calls too much attention to itself (“Hey! Look at the guys in drag!”). But it’s one of a very few missteps in Rothstein’s impressive revision that honors a stage classic while venturing in new directions.